Inside the Classroom: Family Systems in Ministry

Written by Kristina Alvarado
March 19, 2015

It is early Monday morning and the Family Systems in Ministry class is settling in as Dr. Cobb holds up her morning coffee cup and asks the class: ?What is this?? Students begin to offer up the first words that come to mind: coffee, cup, Starbucks, comforting, treat, corporate. She then poses the question: ?Who is right??

This is her introduction to the theory of the day?Narrative Therapy. Narrative therapy is a post-modern therapeutic model that validates multiple experiences of reality, values the individual?s lived experience, and encourages an individual to reimagine their own narrative in a way that validates his or her experience. It is just one of the many systems theories the class has covered over the course of the Winter Quarter.

The course, "Family Systems in Ministry," is a School of Theology and Ministry offering at Seattle University that introduces students to family systems' theories of change. The class is required for the school's Master of Arts in Relationship & Pastoral Therapy (a couples and family therapy program), but draws students from other school and university degree programs. This Winter Quarter, the class has been made up of students from programs including the MA in Relationship & Pastoral Therapy, Master of Divinity-Chaplaincy specialization, MA in Pastoral Studies, and SU College of Education?s MA in Student Development Administration. Students have come with professional experiences in hospital chaplaincy, in-patient treatment, military service, elder care, corporate project management, higher education and student affairs, and many other backgrounds.

Regardless of their disciplines of study and future vocations, the course offers students a rich understanding of the dynamics of the family systems they will most certainly encounter in their work. The course intentionally helps students identify the major assumptions and concepts associated with each of the major models of family therapy--conceptualizing individuals, couples, families, and larger systems (e.g., places of worship) from a systemic perspective. Equipped with a nuanced understanding of family systems theories, each student develops a sense of their own theoretical orientation as it relates to the treatment, care, and ministry of individuals, couples, and families.

Dr. Rebecca (Becky) Cobb?a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and Clinical Coordinator for the school?s Relationship & Pastoral Therapy program?teaches this course, having joined the School of Theology and Ministry faculty and administration this academic year from Florida State University. Adjunct faculty, Dr. Jeney Park Hearn, supports the learning environment as guest lecturer throughout the quarter, bringing her direct experience in pastoral counseling and ministerial work. ?Throughout the course, Dr. Cobb proposes that in order to gain a complete understanding of the individual, it is necessary to have an understanding of the individual within context of his or her family system.

Each week students grapple with a different theoretical perspective, working to gain a more full and nuanced picture of the model. The class engages with the theory in question through texts, discussions, role play, and other experiential activities in order to illuminate its main tenets. Dr. Cobb appreciates the collaborative, integrative, curious learning environment the class has developed. She comments: ?The students in this class put in a considerable amount of time, energy, critical thought, and hard work. They are creative, thoughtful, insightful, and fun! In addition, they are gentle and supportive of one another throughout the learning process. I appreciate time spent with each and every student in this course. This class has truly been a joy to teach!?

The snapshot of this one class offering is a great picture of how Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry has reimagined a couples and family therapy program?one ?that addresses clients as whole people within their relational and belief systems. Students are challenged to think critically about the origins, creator, assumptions, interventions, and goals of each theoretical framework, while talking through how the theory comes to life in client scenarios. Through this and other courses addressing theory in action, the Master of Arts in Relationship & Pastoral Therapy program prepares future couples and family therapists for their work in a variety of contexts, while also preparing students for the state licensure exam.

For more information on the MA in Relationship & Pastoral Therapy, a couples and family therapy program, click here.